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From Non-minds to Minds: Biosemantics and the Tertium Quid

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Part of the Biosemiotics book series (BSEM,volume 8)


I present and evaluate the prospects of the biosemantic program, understood as a philosophical attempt to explain the mind’s origins by appealing to something that non-minded organisms and minded organisms have in common: representational capacity. I develop an analogy with ancient attempts to account for the origins of change, clarify the biosemantic program’s aims and methods, and then distinguish two importantly different forms of objection, a priori and a posteriori. I defend the biosemantic program from a priori objections on the grounds that the standard of explanation presupposed by them is inappropriate and leads to absurdities if consistently applied. Once the way is cleared of a priori objections, the success of biosemantics turns on the strength of a posteriori objections, that is, on the program’s empirical adequacy. Here, its prospects are less clear, but I offer reasons, by analogy with chemical combination and other everyday phenomena, to think that minded beings and their representational capacities might well have their origin and explanation in non-minded beings. An evolutionary origin and explanation of mind is plausible, at least as far as naturalistic accounts and explanations go.


  • Marine Bacterium
  • Proper Function
  • Naturalistic Explanation
  • Biological Representation
  • Empirical Adequacy

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  1. 1.

    “Being has no coming-into-being and no destruction… And it never Was, nor Will Be, because it Is now, a Whole all together, One, continuous” (Freeman 1984b). The paradoxes of Zeno (of Elea) bolster, a Parmenidean metaphysics.

  2. 2.

    More provocatively, “In the same river, we both step and do not step, we are and we are not” (Freeman 1984a).

  3. 3.

    This principle is commonly attributed to Parmenides.

  4. 4.

    To be sure, panpsychism has many forms. For instance, some panpsychists will maintain that there is mentality everywhere and to the same degree, while others will maintain that the degree varies from place to place; some maintain that mentality exists at the subatomic and cosmic levels and everything in between, while others will maintain that it can be found only at the level of ordinary medium-size objects. It becomes the burden of panpsychist who attributes mentality to the subatomic, medium-sized, and cosmic to explain the relation between the low-level and high-level mindedness of single entities.

  5. 5.

    Likewise, the claim that green apples can become red apples is distinct from the claim that that green can become red.

  6. 6.

    Of course, not any common feature will suffice; although both non-minded and minded organisms occupy space-time, this common feature sheds no light on the manner by which minded organisms might have evolved from non-minded organisms.

  7. 7.

    For instance, see Millikan (1984, 1989, 1993), Neander (1991a, b, 1995), and Papineau (1987, 1993, 1997).

  8. 8.

    By contrast, nonnormative representations cannot be wrong. For instance, although we may misinterpret the meaning of the rings of a tree – thinking that it is older than it really is – this is not because the rings have misled us or somehow lied. The rings provide a nonnormative representation of the age of the tree. Likewise, we may interpret lightning to mean that a storm is on its way, but the lightning has not erred or made a mistake if no storm occurs.

  9. 9.

    Dretske (1994, p.164).

  10. 10.

    For example, it is not by assignment or convention that states of the amygdala represent danger. Neither we nor tiny homunculi assign meanings to our mental states, arguably, on pain of regress.

  11. 11.

    Importantly, the strong continuity thesis to a plant does not have the same degree of mindedness as is possessed by a human, nor does it attribute nonliving entities mindedness, a la varieties of panpsychism. See Stillwaggon Swan and Goldberg (2010a) for an illuminating argument in favor of the strong continuity thesis, one that appeals to the work of the biochemist Gordon Tomkins. Unfortunately, space does not allow for a comparison of biosemiotic and biosemantic analyses of Tomkins’ view on metabolic coding systems.

  12. 12.

    R  =  representation, O  =  object of representation.

  13. 13.

    Moreover, the relation that exists between a mental representation and its object is unlike any ordinary physical relation. Ordinary physical relations such as on top of and next to are sensitive to the time and location of would-be relata. But mental representations readily stand in the aboutness relation even to the distant past and to the causally inefficacious future, as well as to things that will never exist: dream vacations and world peace. No ordinary physical relation has what does not exist as a relatum.

  14. 14.

    For instance, even if a loud heartbeat confers survival benefits by enabling a physician to detect health problems with a stethoscope, it is not plausibly the biological function of the heart to beat loudly enough that its beating can be detected by a stethoscope. Stethoscopes could not have had any causal influence on our Pleistocene ancestors. Similarly, it is not the biological function of our fingers to type on a keyboard, even if the ability to type confers some selective advantage today.

  15. 15.

    Stillwaggon and Goldberg analyze this insight in (2010b).

  16. 16.

    That is, no third thing obtains. This rule of (a priori) reasoning is commonly called the “law of excluded middle.”

  17. 17.

    See Haack (1976).

  18. 18.

    See Achinstein (1983).

  19. 19.

    Millikan (1989, p. 285).

  20. 20.

    Millikan (1989, p. 288).


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Correspondence to Crystal L’Hôte .

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L’Hôte, C. (2013). From Non-minds to Minds: Biosemantics and the Tertium Quid . In: Swan, L. (eds) Origins of Mind. Biosemiotics, vol 8. Springer, Dordrecht.

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